40% of all food produced in the U.S. goes to waste.
Thanks to restaurant leftovers, spoiled household food, and unpurchased produce, Americans throw out roughly $165 billion in food each year. This discarded food forms the largest category of municipal solid waste in landfills–which releases billions of tons of greenhouse gasses. At the same time that we are wasting such high proportions of food, roughly 1 out of 8 Americans lives in a food-insecure household.
Food waste is an often under-addressed problem. To counter this, the USDA launched a program called the Food Waste Challenge. This encourages efforts to:
- Reduce food waste by optimizing food usage, storage, and labeling.
- Recover food waste by connecting donations to nonprofits.
- Recycle food waste to feed animals or create compost or fertilizer.
Finding solutions for food waste is a surprisingly booming industry. Startups are popping up all around the country with innovative solutions. (If you’re interested, here are some in Boston.) I scoured the internet to pinpoint 4 particularly interesting companies fighting to reduce food waste.
Reduce: Spoiler Alert
Our technology platform facilitates food donations, discounted food sales, and organics brokering. We offer the relevant accounting and reporting systems to capture tax benefits and document important financial, environmental, and social metrics.
Every food business will end up with surplus food, and often that becomes shrink. Spoiler Alert is a Boston-based startup that enables food businesses to reduce shrink costs, gain tax benefits from charitable donations, empower employees with waste management tools, and help fight food insecurity by ensuring your excess food reaches nonprofits. They have two tools: Spoiler Alert Marketplace, which is a B2B online platform to enable food donations. Marketplace allows your business to list your surplus food and immediately connect to interested nonprofits. This helps with the “Recover” goal of the USDA. Spoiler Alert Enterprise is an accounting program to simplify food waste inventory. This program optimizes your inventory management, accounting, and donation tracking. With advanced systems like these, it’s easier than ever to reduce food waste.
Recover: Imperfect Produce
In America, 1 in 5 fruits and vegetables grown don’t fit grocery stores’ strict cosmetic standards — the crooked carrot, the curvy cucumber, the undersized apple — usually causing them to go to waste. Imperfect’s mission is to find a home for these “ugly” fruits and veggies.
Fruit and veggies that look a little strange still taste exactly the same, but customers are conditioned to buy only the prettiest produce. Knowing that “ugly” produce won’t sell, supermarkets refuse to buy it, and it rots away on farms. Imperfect solves this problem by sourcing unpurchased produce directly from the farms and delivering it weekly or biweekly. Prices are 30-50% more affordable because farmers are more than willing to turn a previous loss into a slight profit with Imperfect. Produce is then packed up into custom boxes and shipped to your door. You can purchase 4 main varieties of boxes: Organic mixed, regular mixed, all veggie, or all fruit boxes. Boxes come from size small to extra large, and you can customize what’s inside. You can see all the produce that is supposed to be included and why it’s “Imperfect,” then change the quantities to ensure you receive the produce you want. Prices vary based on which items are included in the box each week. Families on SNAP benefits can purchase baskets at ⅓ the price–making healthy living more affordable for people below the poverty line. There are a variety of other startups similar to Imperfect that are making sure unused produce makes its way to people who will consume it.
WISErg is focused on creating a revolutionary solution for diverting food scraps from landfills, composters, and digesters. It starts by using a WISErg Harvester to capture the nutrients in the food discard stream — one grocery store, cafeteria, and restaurant at a time. Once stabilized in the Harvester, materials are transferred to a nearby WISErg facility, where they are processed into fertilizer.
So how does WISErg utilize 3 times the energy of compost while using 50% less emissions? Grocery stores and commercial kitchens start by purchasing a machine called a WISErg Harvester. The machine is odorless, pest-free, and easy-to-use.
It converts food scraps into a nutrient-rich slurry that serves as ingredients for fertilizer. This is different than composting because it can process all types of food scraps. (There are restrictions on what will compost well.) The resulting slurry is brought to a WISErg facility to be converted into it’s final form as liquid fertilizer for use on organic farms. This helps cut down on chemical fertilizer use by making organic fertilizer readily available and nutrient-rich. Integrated technology helps restaurants track their food waste to reduce overall shrinkage, also helping to fulfill the “Reduce” goal.
The Future: WTRMLN WTR
WTRMLN WTR makes cold-pressed watermelon juice from melons that cannot be sold in the store for aesthetic reasons. Hundreds of millions of pounds previously wasted watermelon now have the potential to be turned into delicious and hydrating juice. WTRMLN WTR is able to acquire these melons at a lower cost and create a new revenue stream for farmers.
Interestingly, the water is not necessarily marketed as being sustainable. It is positioned as a hydrating “sports” drink that can be delicious any time of day, as it is carefully crafted with juicy watermelons. The website and product design is fun, edgy, and fresh. If I had to guess why the founders chose not to push the sustainable aspect of their product, it would be be because they didn’t want WTRMLN WTR to be seen as an expensive, hippy, only-for-people-who-care-about-the-environment-a-lot product. They wanted it to appeal to the masses as a fun and fresh product for breakfast, working out, and hangovers. So while WTRMLN WTR’s brand ambassadors push this funky new product, they have been quietly saving 25 million pounds of watermelon from being discarded annually.
I see business models like WTRMLN WTR as a future of food waste sustainability. Technologies like WISErg and Spoiler Alert help manage food waste on a restaurant-by-restaurant scale. While Imperfect Produce is a brilliant idea, some consumers will still be averse to the ugly produce. Not everyone cares about sustainability enough to sacrifice the idyllic image of a centerpiece bowl full of shining, perfect fruit. However, products like WTRMLN WTR ride the wave of juicing popularity to quietly make a sustainable product go mainstream. This gives me hope that more products will find ways to address food waste while appealing to the general population.
Edit: BC Dining and Food Waste
After receiving a few comments about food at BC, I thought I’d add a few extra links about what BC Dining does about food waste. I’m actually in Sustainability Living Learning Community, so we’ve done a lot of research on this topic. BC Dining does a tremendous job of sustainably innovating, check out this surprisingly fascinating video to learn more. Here’s a nice Height’s article about the recent composting initiative in Mac.
As a capstone project for my Sustainability class, we surveyed the student body to find out that while 80% of students strongly see value in a recycling and composting system on campus, only 10% feel very confident in their knowledge of what can and cannot be recycled and composted. To help solve this, we created an educational video and a fun Buzzfeed quiz about recycling and composting in McElroy Commons (Mac). Check it out, and think consciously about your food waste!